Life Abroad

Police brutality and Onovo’s challenge

When Nigerians think about the disappointments of their perpetually infantile nation, they often focus narrowly on rigged elections and the abuses of their gluttonous public officials. These are, without question, serious symptoms of dysfunction.

Even so, I fear that we neglect to zero in on the way that police (and often military) brutality serves to remind Nigerians that they are serfs in their own country.

Any Nigerian who has had an unwelcome encounter with the Nigerian police – and that, I suspect, is most of us – can tell you that the experience is akin to being besieged by a horde of rabid hyena.

I know. More than twenty years ago, I was arrested in Onitsha (along with two of my journalist friends) just because we stood up for a young man who was slapped by a police officer – and then ordered to sit down on the wet ground (it had rained heavily). What was the young man’s offense?

We were all in the same bus (headed for Awka) when the police flagged it down and asked the driver to come down. The young man leaned out of the window and beckoned to one of the officers. “My father died,” he explained to the officers, “and I’m coming from Kano to go and make arrangements for his burial.” He then begged the officer to let us go.

“Shut up!” barked the officer, smacking him on the face.

“Why do you have to slap me?” the passenger asked.

“You want to know why?” the officer fumed. “Oya, come down!” As soon as the man got down, the officer pointed to the wet earth. “Quick, quick, sit down!” the officer instructed.

Outraged by this senseless humiliation of an innocent citizen, I asked the passenger not to sit in the wetness.

My intervention earned the officers’ ire. They decreed that I alight from the bus. When my two colleagues tried to reason with the officers, they, too, were dragged down. One of my colleagues began to scribble the name of one of the officers on a piece of paper. Another officer ran from behind and, with the butt of his gun, dealt a blow at my colleague’s hand, knocking down his pen and paper. With his boot, the officer then smashed both the pen and paper into the soggy earth.

At this point, the officers were so infuriated that they ordered other passengers in the vehicle to get down and look for other buses. Then they herded my two colleagues, the smacked man and me onto the bus. Three officers hopped in as well, and the driver was commanded to turn around and head for a police camp in a remote part of Onitsha. As we drove there, the three officers cursed and threatened us. He promised that, once at their camp, we’d be so beaten up that our mothers would not recognize us.

In the end, we had a lucky – “narrow” – escape. We were marched before a senior officer who sat on a stump in the early afternoon heat, his eyes bloodshot, attending to a large bottle of Guinness Stout. Our captors then proceeded to tell him a series of lies. They said they’d stopped our vehicle for a simple routine check, but that we then boasted that we were journalists, that we knew all the big men in the country, and that no police officer dared question our driver.

“Bastards!” screamed the senior officer, fixing his fiery eyes on us. But the officer must have sensed a calm in us, and so asked us to tell our own side of things. After we did, he asked if we were really journalists. We produced our ID cards – we were all members of the editorial board of National Concord. Shaken, the senior officer scolded his subordinates. He told them that we could write all of them, himself included, out of their jobs. He apologized to us, asked our hitherto exuberant arresters to apologize, and sent us on our way.

For us, it was an ambivalent moment. What if we were not journalists? What if we had not been “arraigned” before an officer who had a fear of the written word?

Since then, I’ve had many more run-ins with the police. In 2002, five police officers held me up at Oshodi for close to two hours. I was driving to a meeting at a newspaper house where I then wrote a weekly column – and ran into a terrible traffic snag at Oshodi. I was already on edge, trying to navigate between hordes of pedestrians crossing the highway, a colony of “okada” motorcyclists who respect no traffic rules, and other motorists when, suddenly, an officer stepped in front of my car and demanded that I pull up to the curb. After inspecting the documents of the Honda, he then told me he suspected the car was stolen. The car belonged to my father-in-law, and I knew he was not a thief. But the officer was not impressed. He accused me of being a thief – “since you’re operating a stolen vehicle.”

I asked to be taken to a police station if he believed I’d stolen the car. Instead of doing so, he and his four colleagues took turns painting the most dreadful portrait of what would happen to me if they took me to the station. I remained unrepentant: “If you think I stole this car,” I told them, “you have a duty to arrest me and take me to your station.”

The officers had a different game and outcome in mind. After detaining me at Oshodi for an hour and forty minutes, the most senior officer made his proposal. “Oya,” he said to me, “give us some money and go.” In a voice that tried to belie my anger, I told him that I would not part with a kobo of my money. “You accuse me of stealing a car, and you think I’d reward you with a bribe?”

The officer looked me up and down, his contempt raw and on the surface. Turning to his colleagues, he pointed to his head and said in a mocking tone, “Dis one dey craze. Make we leave am.”

Many – perhaps, most – other Nigerians have their own versions of horror stories with rogue police officers.

A headline in a Next edition of April 30 read: “Policemen brutalize Tribune reporter in Ondo”. The report is harrowing: “The Ondo State correspondent of the Nigerian Tribune, Yinka Oladoyinbo was Wednesday evening assaulted by men of the Okuta Elerinla Police Station, Akure, Ondo State, who thoroughly beat him up and detained him at the police station for four hours.” The fifteen officers who took part in the operation “dragged Mr. Oladoyinbo from his car and forcefully handcuffed him.” They also “dragged [him] on the floor before he was bundled into a police Hilux van.”

The Next report disclosed that the policemen “acted in a commando manner.” As they mauled the reporter, the officers “threatened to shoot any person who intervened”. Why was this citizen subjected to vigilante-like beating? The policemen, Next reported, “claimed that their Station Officer, Ayodeji Oyeyemi, was molested in the area.”

Current police Inspector General Ogbonna Onovo must serve notice to his subordinates that their job specification does not include assaulting Nigerian citizens at will. He should dismiss the officers who took part in beating Mr. Oladoyinbo.

Nigerians are daily beset by criminals – corrupt government officials who grow fat on public funds, armed robbers and scam gurus. There’s a lot of work for a well-trained, professionally sound police force to do. Unfortunately, the Nigerian police have established a reputation for incompetence, for harassing law-abiding citizens whilst letting criminals thrive, and for sheer brutality.

Mr. Onovo should outline measures to weed trigger-happy men from the police, to make service conditions more attractive, and to radically retrain officers to give them a deep sense of what’s meant by law enforcement.

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